Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Prairie Travel:

Rufus Sage (in Rocky Mountain Life) provides a description of methods in use to avoid detection and for safe travel across the prairies:

"In our mode of travelling, we always used due precaution to avoid surprise and attack.  This is easily done, while among buffalo, by noticing their movements, -as these animals invariably flee across the wind upon the approach of man, and neither Indians nor whites can traverse their range without setting the whole country in motion.  

We observed another plan of caution by frequently ascending some imminence, and scanning the wide expanse, far and near.

Our general practice was to travel till night, and camp without fire in the open prairie, thus precluding the possibility of being discovered, even though in the immediate vicinity of Indians.

A party of three or four men can pass through a dangerous country and avoid coming in contact with enemies, provided they exercise a needful vigilance much more easily than one of larger numbers.  With a large company too much dependence is reposed in each other, which soon results in individual carelessness and neglect.  Added to this, they are apt to rely upon their numerical strength, and forgetting this simple truism, that "caution is the parent of safety," rush into danger when they are least aware of it.  It thus occurs that large parties are more liable to surprise than smaller ones, and more frequently suffer losses from the depredations of prowling enemies."


Often times there was no wood available for cooking or fires.  Under such circumstances sage or bois de vache might be used as a less than satisfactory substitute.  Here Lewis Garrard (Reference) describes the use of bois de vache.  

"We encamped on a slope, using bois de vache [buffalo chips] for want of better fuel.  We, on horses, selected the camp before the wagons came up.  Mr. St. Vrain and I, Folger and Chadwick, and Drinker and Bransford, each pair taking an apishamore, would collect our blankets full of the fuel (for the “wood” lies in al directions), bring it up to the intended fire, and off again, until a pile several feet high had been collected.  It burns well and freely, catching the steel-sparks like tinder; but being light, is soon fanned into a hot coal, and turns immediately to ashes. "


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